Disclaimer: this is a long piece but I truly think you will get something out of reading it.
This has been one of the most interesting, infuriating, and intellectually stimulating weeks I’ve had in a long time.
Well gee Pat- how did that happen?!
I was sitting in one of my classes last week and I heard about an upcoming event taking place on campus. I honestly didn’t even know what the panel was going to be talking about but I recognized some of the names coming to speak so I figured I’d check it out.
Little did I know I was stepping into a swirling ball of controversy.
Let’s lay out the evidence and then we can assess what to make of it.
Statement from UMass Chancellor Subbaswamy on the BDS Event:
UMASS, Amherst – An event scheduled for Nov. 12 on the UMass Amherst campus focusing on the anti-Israel “Boycott, Divest, Sanction” movement (BDS) is being presented by a private foundation – not by the university. This private foundation has, as many non-UMass organizations regularly do, rented space on campus to host the upcoming event, which is being billed as a panel discussion on “The Attack on BDS and American Democracy.” Despite our concerns regarding this particular gathering, based on its title and past statements by its panelists, as a public institution UMass is bound by the First Amendment to the Constitution to apply a content-neutral standard when making facilities available to outside organizations. For this reason, and in adherence to the principles of academic freedom, the university will take no steps to inhibit this event.
However, while UMass Amherst is firmly committed to the principles of free speech and academic freedom, the University remains firmly opposed to BDS and to academic boycotts of any kind. Academic boycotts are antithetical to academic freedom and it is ironic that individuals, who rely upon that very freedom to make their case, should advocate for a movement, in BDS, that seeks to suppress it.
It is troubling that such a one-dimensional, polarizing event should take place on our campus. A panel discussion where only one perspective is shared does little to increase the understanding of such a complex topic like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Furthermore, because the BDS position in general fails to acknowledge the humanity on the Israeli side of the conflict and is considered by many as anti-Semitic, the upcoming event could very well alienate many of our Jewish students and other members of our campus community.
Clearly, the divisions among Palestinians and Israelis represent one of the intractable problems of our times, and we acknowledge the suffering that exists on all sides. But if we are going to truly build a community of dignity and respect, we must step outside our own echo-chambers and encourage the free exchange of ideas. And while I wholeheartedly support freedom of speech for all, I also maintain that, as chancellor, I have a duty to be a voice for our campus’s values. And one of those values, which I think is critically important in ensuring a safe and welcoming living-learning community, is inclusion. We remain committed to ensuring an inclusive campus that will continue to prioritize the safety and security of all students. When outside organizations come onto our campus and give a high-profile platform for one-sided and divisive political positions that some view as deeply offensive, they are saying to valued members of our community that they don’t belong. This is the antithesis of our commitment to inclusion, and we will not hesitate to speak out against efforts to divide our campus community.
I could easily write this whole piece bashing our Chancellor for making a statement that didn’t need to be made but as someone who has been outspoken against “cancel culture” I don’t think that’d be the right thing to do.
We are all human.
We all make mistakes.
But with that being said, in the spirit of free speech, these are the questions I had after reading what he had to say:
- How can a university say they are “firmly committed to the principles of free speech and academic freedom” when they smear and demonize viewpoints just because they aren’t their own?
2. Who considers the rhetoric of BDS to be anti-Semitic? (apparently it is “considered by many”)
3. “A panel discussion where only one perspective is shared does little to increase the understanding of such a complex topic like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
This was my understanding of the conflict before the event:
Do you think a person like me would benefit from hearing another perspective on the issue?
4) “the upcoming event could very well alienate many of our Jewish students and other members of our campus community”
Should we value the feelings of students over the lives at stake in the conflict?
5) “we must step outside our own echo-chambers and encourage the free exchange of ideas.”
Do you see the hypocrisy in telling us to step outside our echo chambers and encourage the free exchange of ideas when our university puts out a statement that literally discourages the free exchange of ideas?
6) Have you ever heard the quote “never solidarity before criticism”? If so, what does that quote mean to you?
So that’s that; hopefully we’ll get some answers soon enough.
But Pat what about the event itself? Was it anti-Semitic? Was it polarizing and divisive? Did it call for violence?
Honestly, I feel like Vince Lombardi at this point.
Because I got a lot out of the event.
For starters, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd recorded a video message for the event. It got me thinking about how the celebrities in our culture wield their social power. You don’t see too many artists taking a stand on big societal issues nowadays because they know it’ll hurt their bottom line. It made me so happy to see people like Waters who (for lack of a better word) give a shit.
-I found out that Patriots owner Robert Kraft has pledged $20 million dollars to fight BDS
-I found out that 3 million Palestinians are being occupied by the Israeli Military
-I found out that the United States gives 3 billion dollars to Israel every year (more than all other countries combined)
-I found out that when Duke faced backlash they responded quite differently than UMass
-I heard about Dan Clawson for the first time. He was a professor who worked in the UMass sociology department for 40 years who unfortunately died last spring. I’m looking forward to reading his work in the near future.
-I thought about the quote “Wanna know who controls you? Look at who you can’t criticize.” then I looked it up and found out it stems from a neo-nazi. Sheesh. Strange how things said by terrible people can still be of use in the fight for good.
-I listened to Linda Sarsour (A.K.A- every Islamophobe’s worst nightmare) bring up the point that the fight against anti-Semitism should be the same as the one for Palestinian freedom.
-I listened to Omar Barghouti who has been banned from the United States by the current administration (he Skyped in- gotta love technology). He said “they try to silence my voice” and brought up a shoot to kill and maim initiative currently happening. I learned that the United Nations found Israeli Defense Forces guilty of crimes against humanity. Omar said “Apartheid in South Africa was a picnic compared to Israel/Palestine”.
-I listened to anti-racism activist Tim Wise say he was a Jew who was incredibly tired of being told what anti-Semitism is. I can’t do his whole talk justice but believe me when I say it was powerful and from the heart. He proposed that we learn to “argue the point instead of shutting it down” (what a concept!)
-I listened to journalist Shaun King who spoke about his background in activism. He referenced incidents of police brutality that cost the lives of:
He spoke on how harrowing it is to see a man die at the hands of officers and how he has been forced to change his strategy when talking to the families of the victims. He used to assure them that justice would be served but time and time again it was proving not to be true.
He also said that there were four necessary elements for change:
- Highly energized people
- Deeply organized
- Utilizing the skills of the people in the room
- Well-funded sophisticated plan
-I listened to founder and director of Palestine Legal and Cooperating Counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) Dima Khalidi mention how the Chancellor’s email following an act of hate was considerably shorter than the statement written condemning BDS. Dima also mentioned how frustrating it is to have to worry more about oppressors than the real issues that are happening. Khalidi also spoke about a bill that legislators in Massachusetts tried to pass last year (that is resurfacing this year) that would criminalize opposing Israel.
-I listened to Harvard Professor and philosopher Dr. Cornel West give one of the most electric speaking performances I have ever witnessed in person. He touched on the importance of reading great African American writers like Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and W.E.B Du Bois. He quoted Socrates saying “the unexamined life is not worth living” before adding the historical context that Socrates was hated by many when he was alive for his frank and unintimidated speech. He spoke on how Israel is losing sight of their history of being underdogs and are in some ways turning into oppressors themselves. He posed questions such as “How should integrity face oppression?” and “How do we come to terms with it all?”. He preached on the importance of solidarity amongst human beings and the need for a commitment to others. He made remarks about the moral hypocrisies and spiritual emptiness plaguing us.
Much like our Chancellor- he spoke vehemently against echo chambers.
I highly recommend listening to him more:
Some other miscellaneous quotes and ideas expressed that are worth mentioning:
-The idea of courage stemming from love
-The idea that there’s enough to go around
-The quote “Earn your death” by James Baldwin
-Staying honest when people are dishonest
-Maintaining integrity in the face of oppression
-The quote “You don’t do things so others will join; you do it because they are right” by Tim Wise
-The idea of leaving the world a better place than you found it
Hopefully you got something out of reading this piece today. I’m not fully educated on all these issues by any stretch. But with that being said, I know enough where I can no longer sit idly by while atrocities take place left and right while nobody even seems to care.
I will wrap up by mentioning one last thing that happened at the event; a triggering.
Some kid sitting directly in front of me dawning a bright “Keep America Great” hat decided to cause a little disturbance about three hours into the event. He was playing music from his phone while members of the panel were trying to speak. It was objectively disrespectful but I’m no snowflake- I just ignored him.
After his little outburst I couldn’t help but laugh at thinking why any rational human being would do something like that.
Then it hit me- a rational human being wouldn’t do something like that.
The crowd began to chant things to drown out his thoughts which I understand but I really would’ve liked to have heard what this political savant had to say.
Because despite the disrespectful nature of this kid’s actions- he briefly broke up the echo chamber (albeit an echo chamber of highly intellectual, well spoken, and well-read individuals).
Going forward I hope to write, talk, and make videos about topics that might be seen as controversial by some. But I’ll never be opposed to hearing the other side and when I say anybody can submit to the site- I mean that.
I think Charles sums up my feelings best:
P.S- “Be Revolutionary”